Max is a feisty black cabaret performer resplendent in immaculate dinner-jacket, red bow tie and big Afro hairdo. He tours an unforgiving circuit - working men's clubs, 'gentlemen's evenings' and works dos. In such schools of hard knocks, he has learnt how to put down hecklers. 'Was it a defect at birth?' he asks a persistent offender, before adding: 'Isn't it a shame when two cousins marry?'

The reason Max can leave the stage to the sound of laughter rather than a lynch mob is because he's a ventriloquist's doll, or figure. His operator is Scarlet Watt, billed on his promotional handout as 'the first professional West Indian ventriloquist in the history of British showbusiness'.

A tall, elegant 33-year-old with more than a passing resemblance to Eddie Murphy, Scarlet is a throwback: a music hall performer, an artiste, a prima donna even. He takes his job as an entertainer very seriously. 'I don't want people sending it up. When it's your living, you're very passionate about it,' he declares. He admits he is a perfectionist, and ticks you off for referring to Max as a dummy rather a figure. Scarlet refuses to perform with him off-stage or off-camera. 'Someone asked me, 'What do you do when you're not doing ventriloquism?' The answer is I'm never not doing ventriloquism. It's my life.'

It has not been an easy life. The son of a Huddersfield railwayman with a family of 10, Scarlet was a straight stand-up until, five years ago, he spotted what he thought was a gap in the cabaret market. 'I've got a radar for an opportunity. I know what people want. People love dolls - I'm not being perverted. I've worked with a lot of Filofax comedians; you know the sort - 'my wife's so fat . . .'. That's what killed Opportunity Knocks - the performers were all the same. If you can go out and suspend reality, that's the buzz. I'm taking ventriloquism to a different level.'

He may well be, but why does he do it? Is he working an unhappy childhood out of his system? Is he erecting a spiky barrier between himself and the racists so prevalent on the club circuit?

Sitting in a City of London restaurant with Carol, his partner of 11 years, Scarlet eschews deep analysis. But, as he tucks into a T-bone steak, he gradually chews over his relationship with the doll: 'Max is an extension of my personality, but he says things I wouldn't dream of saying. With hecklers, I just play it deadpan and leave it to Max. He might say to one, 'Six million sperm and you won the race'. Then I apologise, and he snaps, 'What are you apologising to rubbish like that for?' In the act, I'm not educated. Max is the one with the brains.' Max is the Emu of our age. Rod Hull would never have assaulted Michael Parkinson on live TV, but his puppet was more than happy to.

Scarlet has yet to achieve the fame of a Rod Hull. He has performed at the sort of venues where the audience think Bernard Manning is a screaming pinko. 'You'd cry if I told you some of the stories. I did a gentlemen's club in Ashford, where I came on to monkey noises. Another time, I played the Liverpool Police Club. They were evil . . . When those hecklers say 'I mean it', you can sense they do. Max says 'See you out the front', and I climb out the toilet at the back. What I always say about ventriloquism is that it took my innocence.' Scarlet's reception at some of these venues would have been even hairier if he hadn't been a highly accomplished ventriloquist. He will not discuss his training beyond revealing that it was two years before his teacher allowed him to handle a figure. He practises with his figure for at least four hours a day: 'a vent (as they say in the biz) is like Daley Thompson. When he knows he's got an Olympic Decathlon, he trains and trains for it.'

Scarlet is now working up the act with a second doll, a white skinhead called John. 'I said to the doll- maker, 'Break his nose, make him look like he's been hit with a baseball bat. Make him look sinister'.' He does. John's stage debut was accorded a standing ovation by a Prison Officer's club in Cambridge. Nookie Bear he is not: 'When they see John, audiences think, 'The shit's going to hit the fan now'.' There is real edge to a stage act in which a black man operates antagonistic black and white dolls in front of a predominantly white audience.

Scarlet performs a brave, original act, but is he destined to remain in a bywater of showbiz? Richard Allen- Turner, a director at Avalon, the leading comedy promoters, reckons so. 'Ventriloquism has been done to death. It's not at all sexy. It's too restrictive; all you can do is pretend someone's talking to you.'

Scarlet begs to differ. His Luton front room is plastered with pictures of the major music hall ventriloquists, a shrine to an art form which he thinks can be great again. He is on a mission to bring ventriloquism to the masses.

And perhaps he'll succeed; he certainly has the conviction to do so. As our lunch ends, the waitress sidles up and timidly asks: 'Excuse me, but don't I know you?' With a flourish, he whips out a publicity photo of himself and Max and signs it for her. 'Never forget your public,' he announces grandly. On the pavement outside, he seems starry- eyed and momentarily you believe that someone with such faith might just make it big after all. 'Did you see I'm Friday's Daily Choice in the Radio Times?' he asks. 'Not bad for a bloke who talks to himself, eh?'

Scarlet Watt is the subject of 'Distant Voices, Still Lips', in the 'Short Stories' series tomorrow at 8pm on Channel 4.

(Photograph omitted)